Thursday, September 20, 2012

Kampong Cham, Cambodia

This is Post #5 of the Vietnam & Cambodia section.






The days spent in the Kampong Cham province of Cambodia were some of my favorite days of the trip.  We saw incredible architecture, fantastic sculptures, and rhesus monkeys!  We also visited craft villages and a local school.  We took an ox cart ride to the sculpture park.  Honestly, it was one of the bumpiest, most uncomfortable rides I've ever taken, but it didn't matter.  Fun is fun, and ox cart rides are random, exciting, and definitely fun.  All 61 of us paired up and climbed awkwardly into the ox carts and bumped along the road.

Outside the Monastery
Our first stop in Kampong Cham was at a monastery.  Before arriving, our guide instructed us on how to do a traditional, respectful Cambodian greeting.  Basically, you put your hands together - finger tips together, palms slightly apart, thumbs tucked in, and you hold your hands up to various points on your body depending on what level of respect the person your greeting deserves.  Then you bow slightly.  Our guide recommended that we greet the monks at the monastery with a very high level of respect, knowing that that was how they would also greet us.

The Monastery


Driving up, I noticed that the monastery's exterior was decorated in the same style as the royal palace in Phenom Penh.  The magnificent building was coated in  snakes, tiles, patterns, and lots of orange/gold coloring.  You have to remove your shoes before entering the building.  When you go in, the monks greet you and invite you to sit in a group on the floor with them.  There, they chanted a "good luck in life" type of blessing for us.




Inside the Monastery
One of my most memorable hours in Cambodia was the hour we spent exploring a sculpture park in Kampong Cham.  Our tour guide, Adam, was born in Kampong Cham, and shared with us that he used to come to the sculpture park as often as possible to relax, spend time with friends, and see the monkeys.  Looking around, I was amazed to see so many monkeys strolling by and climbing the sculptures.  We were instructed to keep our mouths closed around the monkeys so they wouldn't think we were showing our teeth and threatening them.  The only problem with that is that everyone almost instinctively smiles, points, and enthusiastically starts to talk upon seeing a monkey...and then slaps a hand over their mouth remembering to cover their teeth. We didn't have any problems with the monkeys, and we were lucky to be able to walk right up to them.

As I stood near the monkeys though, I remembered visiting the travel vaccine place near home the year before.  I had been about to leave for Spain, and was getting the typhoid vaccine for the trip to Asia.  I was told that there wasn't enough time for me to get the rabies vaccine, which was recommended, before leaving for Spain.  Instead, they simply recommended that I avoid monkeys and other animals and try not to get bit.  Fantastic.  Anyhow, I took some really, really adorable monkey photos.


Aside from the adorable monkeys, I really enjoyed seeing the sculptures of winged figures lining the park's already tree-lined pathways.  The brightly colored sculptures were all different and displayed exciting head pieces, many bracelets, and decorated outfits.  Each was posed and dressed differently from the others, adding to the charm of the place.  




 
As we passed through the sculpture park, we saw several different Buddha sculptures, all in gold, and in different poses.  The one below is at the center of the park and surrounded by what I imagine are followers.  Another sculpture shows a colossal sized Buddha reclining and showing a flower pattern on the bottom of its feet.



Another exciting stop we made while in the province of Kampong Cham was to a silver village, a collection of homes where the families make silver plated platters and jewelry.  In a few of the homes, people showed us how they carved designs into the pieces (right) and how they added the silver coating after the design was finished.  I bought a bracelet with a pattern of elephants carved into it.  I love wearing it, and wear it so much that the silver coating is already starting to wear away in places.  I believe the elephant is a religious symbol in Cambodia, but I'm not quite sure what it stands for.  Other things I bought later in the week (a table cloth, a scarf, a purse, etc.) also had elephant patterns.
Later, while walking on another village tour, one family was kind enough to invite us into their home.  All the homes are built on stilts for protection from the inevitable floods.  Wanting to share their lifestyle
with us, the family explained to our tour guide that we were welcome to climb the ladder into their home, but that if too many people entered the house at once, the floor might collapse.  Since my kitchen ceiling in Boston caved in (Summer 2010), I figured I could handle the risk of a collapsing floor and decided to give it a try.  With this mix of hospitality and hazard in mind, I cautiously climbed up into the house, looked around, and thanked the family.  The house had a calendar, photos of the family, religious pictures, some dishes, and some clothes.  Unlike my structurally unsound apartment in Boston, the floor in their house held up just fine.  They had no running water or electricity, but curiously, they did have a cell phone.  After we had left the house, our guide explained to us that instead of charging their cell phone, since they didn't have electricity, they had to buy batteries for it.

Before leaving Kampong Cham, we also visited a school and bought school supplies in a market to donate to this school.  Had I have known we were going to visit a school before departing from the US, I would have packed more supplies.  It would have been better than simply giving whatever I had with me by chance.  Luckily, we did stop at a market to get a few extras.  I gave them several sets of colored pencils.  Other people bought and donated uniforms, soccer balls, notebooks, pencils, paper, scissors, rulers, etc.  
At the school, it was interesting to observe how the students learned English.  From what we saw, it seemed that their main method of learning English was to write a sentence on the board and have one person say it out loud.  Then, the entire class would repeat after the leading person.  The students switched among themselves to decide who would pronounce the written words next.  Interestingly, it turned out that many of the students didn't actually understand the words they were reciting.  When we talked to the students, they would always ask us the same questions - the questions they understood.  Typically, they would ask our name, where we came from, our age, and if we had any siblings.  After going to several villages and schools, we could tell that the students really wanted to practice speaking English with tourists, so we talked to them as much as we could.  We enjoyed hearing about their lives too.  In one town, a young girl told me how she grew up in France, and explained to me that after her parents had divorced, she had to come back to Cambodia with her mother, leaving her French father behind.  She shared with me that she hopes to work in science someday.  I hope that the school system where she lives now will be strong enough to support her in achieving her goals.  (Left: A Cambodian Village Home, Below: Students at School.)

  
Back on the ship, our guide explained to us that education is free in Cambodia up through high school. College isn't free, but I doubt it costs even a fraction of what it costs in the US.  Since the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia has been working to rebuild its population of educated people.  The genocide effectively wiped out anyone with an education and anyone who had skills other than farming rice.  It's going to be a long recovery, but I respect the strong motivation I saw to re-educate the population.

On our last day in Kampong Cham and on the cruise, we took a bus to Siem Reap and stopped along the way at a little gift shop and gas station.  At the gas station, we met a woman selling fried crickets (left).  Our tour guide, Adam, bought a bunch of crickets to snack on.  He munched away happily on them as if they were potato chips, and joked that it was Cambodia's KFC - "Khmer Fried Cricket".  Anyhow, he offered each of us a cricket to try.  I was seriously grossed out by the possibility of eating a cricket, but recognized it as a (probably) once in a lifetime "opportunity," so I weighted the pros and cons.  Ultimately, I decided that I could manage to eat one cricket in exchange for a lifetime of bragging rights.  If I had been old, it might not have been worth it.  However, I'm still pretty young, so I expect to get a lot of years to chat about eating a cricket and watch people cringe as their eyes widen in disgust.  

When the guide came around to hand me the cricket, my grandpa informed me that crickets were kosher.  I'm not sure why he knew that, and wondered if he had eaten any bugs on his previous trips to Asia (I don't think so).  The guide told us that the back legs and wings had been removed.  I guess you can't eat those parts.  He handed me a cricket, and I met my first obstacle: I don't like to touch bugs, and therefore didn't want to pick it up.  How was I supposed to eat a cricket if I couldn't even stand to touch it?! Here's how: I braced myself, picked up a fried cricket with two fingers, made a horrible face, took a picture of the cricket (right), closed my eyes, made a worse face, and ate the cricket.  I tried not to think about which parts I was chewing, but I did, and as a result, made even weirder looking, grossed out faces.  Eventually I knew I was going to have to swallow the cricket...the sooner, the better.  In case you're wondering, the cricket didn't really taste like anything.  There's no repulsive flavor.  The worst part is all mental.....you know, the knowledge that you're eating a cricket.  Anyways, I survived that experience, and you can expect to hear me talking about it for the rest of my life.

On a scale from mildly uncomfortable to the most uncomfortable thing ever, I would rate eating a cricket as slightly more comfortable than going to a Moroccan hammam bath.  At the very least, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the experience was better for me than for the cricket.



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